Africa File

The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.  {{authorBox.message}}

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Africa File: Clan Uprising Bolsters anti–al Shabaab Offensive in Central Somalia  

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

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Key Takeaway: Local tribes in central Somalia are increasingly mobilizing against al Shabaab. Several Hawiye subclans in central and south-central Somalia have mobilized local militias to fight al Shabaab after militants ambushed a humanitarian aid convoy on September 2. The Somali government may also attempt to reconcile with the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a (ASWJ) to bring the group into the counter–al Shabaab fight. Al Shabaab will likely accept losses in central Somalia in the short term. Defeating al Shabaab in central Somalia in the long term will depend on local and federal Somali authorities’ ability to deliver tangible and sustained improvements in governance and security.

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: September 2022

Source: Emily Estelle and Kathryn Tyson.

Clan militias have played a crucial role in supporting the Somali Federal Government’s summer offensive in central Somalia from its outset. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) has waged an offensive against al Shabaab in central Somalia’s Hiraan region for most of the summer. Local Hawadle subclan militias, known as Ma’awisley, helped spur this offensive by attacking* an al Shabaab base on June 1. The Hawadle leaders claimed the attack was revenge for al Shabaab assassinating* a Hawadle elder on May 27. Clan members said* they never received a satisfactory explanation from al Shabaab, which accused the elder of apostasy for participating in Somali elections. The clan said the elder was a “clean Muslim man” and denied he participated in elections. Somali security forces and Hawadle militias went on to clear al Shabaab from at least 23 villages between June and August and claim to have killed at least 100 al Shabaab militants.

Figure 2. Somali Forces Wage Central Somalia Offensive: August 2022

Note: Somali National Army is abbreviated as “SNA.” For map definitions and an interactive map, click here.

Source: Author

The Hawadle are part of the majority Hawiye clan in central Somalia. The Hawiye consists of several subclans distributed across the regions and districts of central Somalia. Clans play a crucial role in Somali politics. Subclan rivalries drive disputes within individual federal member states (FMS), while clan rivalries cause conflict between the SFG and FMS and within the SFG itself. Al Shabaab also strategically uses clan connections to recruit members and arrange favorable agreements in areas it does not outright govern.

Figure 3. Somalia Clan Distribution

Source: Ioan Myrddin Lewis, Peoples of the Horn of Africa (Somali Afar and Saho) (London, UK: Routledge, 2019).  

Al Shabaab initiated an escalatory cycle with the Hawadle militias by targeting Hawadle villagers. Al Shabaab destroyed* water wells and torched homes in several Hawadle villages on August 8. The attacks happened after a relative lull in the anti–al Shabaab offensive throughout much of July and helped spark a renewed urgency from Somali forces and clan militias. Hawadle militias and security forces increased joint* operations* after the attack and cleared at least 17 villages in the Hiraan region in the rest of August. The attacks were also an opportunity for the Somali government to gain local support by organizing humanitarian projects* and local government structures* in affected villages.

Al Shabaab responded to the increased pressure by increasing violence. Al Shabaab fighters ambushed a civilian-operated humanitarian aid convoy overnight on September 2. The attackers killed 21 civilians and destroyed nine trucks. Al Shabaab claimed* that the attack targeted local militia forces, which Somali officials denied. Al Shabaab also threatened* on September 4 to target any clan cooperating with the government, indicating it seeks to make an example of the Hawadle.

The September 2 attack mobilized community-level action against al Shabaab. Hawadle militias continued working with SFG forces to secure more areas of the Hiraan region in the aftermath of the attack, on September 5* and 9.* An unverified video posted on social media on September 5 shows villagers publicly prosecuting a captured al Shabaab militant in an unspecified location in the Hiraan region. Somali government-linked sources also posted pictures of women donating food and milk for troops in Beledweyne.

The September 2 attack also encouraged the Abgal subclan to mobilize against al Shabaab. The leader of the Abgal clan militia promised to cut off and destroy al Shabaab while sending his condolences to the Hawadle on September 10. The Abgal are the dominant Hawiye subclan in the Middle Shabelle region and southern Galgudud and Mudug regions (see Figure 3).[1] SNA and likely Abgal militia forces cleared* al Shabaab from areas near the border of the Hiraan and Middle Shabelle regions on September 12. The operation is the first reported instance of local militias in south-central Somalia participating in counterterrorism activities in 2022. Unverified social media posts also say Abgal and SNA forces attacked al Shabaab militants near the long-time al Shabaab stronghold of Harardhere in southern Mudug region on September 11.

Figure 4. Somali Forces Wage Central Somalia Offensive: September 2022

Note: For map definitions and an area of operations interactive map, click here.

Source: Author.

Al Shabaab attacks on civilians, including the September 2 humanitarian convoy attack, prompted the Habir Gadir, another major Hawiye subclan, to mobilize against al Shabaab. The Habir Gadir are the majority subclan in northern and central Galmudug and Mudug regions. Twitter users and Somali government-affiliated news sites have posted pictures and videos showing Habir Gadir mobilization since at least September 5. Al Shabaab targeted Habir Gadir villages less than 25 miles southwest of Bahdo village in northern Galgudud region on September 1* and 5.*

SNA and Galmudug State forces arrived* in Bahdo on September 11 to train and support locals who had “taken up arms.” The local fighters in Bahdo are already battle-tested, as they helped repel* a large al Shabaab suicide raid in June 2022. The mobilization of the Abgal and Habir Gedir alongside the Hawadle would put much of the Hawiye clan—and thus central Somalia—in open war with al Shabaab.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud may attempt to generate additional forces by convincing the Sufi militia ASWJ to join the fight in central Somalia. Former President Mohamud Abdullahi Mohamud (known as Farmaajo) exacerbated tensions between the Galmudug State government and ASWJ in 2020 when he allegedly rigged* state elections to install a political ally as president. The controversy effectively destroyed a 2017 power-sharing agreement and undermined ASWJ’s political power, leading to clashes* between ASWJ and Somali federal and state security forces in October 2021. ASWJ eventually withdrew* to northern Galgudud region at the end of October 2021 and has remained in that area.

ASWJ and President Mohamud have signaled their willingness to negotiate since Mohamud took office in May 2022. ASWJ leadership said* in early June 2022 that they expect Mohamud to attempt to mediate between the militia and the Galmudug State administration. President Mohamud was reportedly debating* with his cabinet in late August 2022 how to best negotiate between ASWJ and Galmudug State officials. ASWJ has long been one of the most effective forces at combating al Shabaab in central Somalia since al Shabaab’s rise in the late 2000s. ASWJ’s experience, resources, and local support would further bolster the anti–al Shabaab offensive.

The sustained participation of Hawiye militias will improve the long-term viability of the summer offensive. Previous Ma’awisley mobilizations in 2019* and 2020* fizzled after isolated firefights with al Shabaab. The 2022 mobilization has already vastly surpassed previous instances in terms of militias’ engagements with al Shabaab and the number of joint operations between local militias and Somali government forces. The involvement of local militias increases the likelihood that anti–al Shabaab forces will stay to protect cleared villages and deny al Shabaab freedom of movement, resources, and taxation in these areas.

The militias will also enable Somali special forces to target al Shabaab control zones in central Somalia. The militias have proven capable of securing* and clearing* some villages in previous al Shabaab support zones with the help of Somali security forces throughout the offensive. SNA, FMS, and Ma’awisley can continue these operations in areas of lower priority to al Shabaab while special forces put more pressure on al Shabaab–administered areas, which the group will dedicate more resources to protect. US-trained Danab forces attacked Buqaqable on September 15. The Somali government claimed to kill at least 18 al Shabaab militants, while al Shabaab claimed to kill* ten Danab soldiers. Al Shabaab had uncontested control of the village since at least 2015 and had organized drought relief,* religious celebrations,* and public executions in the village throughout 2022.[2]

The clan uprisings in central Somalia could enable the SFG to devote more resources toward targeting al Shabaab strongholds in southern Somalia. President Mohamud told the Somali people to prepare for an “all-out war” on al Shabaab after the group besieged the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu on August 19. Turkish-trained Gorgor commandos and US-trained Danab forces with unconfirmed US drone support have since targeted al Shabaab courts,* financial centers,* and other hideouts* in the districts surrounding Mogadishu. President Mohamud indicated this campaign in southern Somalia will continue when he said that the government will target al Shabaab with bombings, raids, and air attacks while warning Somali citizens on September 14 to avoid al Shabaab areas and courts. Continued local militia support in the Hiraan region would potentially free additional Danab* and Gorgor* units to support this ongoing campaign in the south.

Al Shabaab will have to balance its response in central Somalia alongside its other efforts, which stretch from Kenya to northern Somalia. Al Shabaab has continued attacking* Ethiopian forces near the Somali-Ethiopian border in September, indicating it has continued to resource the area after the peak of its Ethiopia offensive in July 2022. The group also attempted to disrupt elections in the ethnically Somali areas of northeastern Kenya in August by intimidating* Kenyan citizens and attacking* polling stations and ballot transports.*[3] Al Shabaab regularly attacks Kenyan and Ugandan African Union bases inside southern Somalia as part of its effort to expel foreign forces.[4] These campaigns continue alongside suicide* bombings* and raids across Somalia that aim to intimidate and immobilize Somali authorities and security forces.

Al Shabaab is unlikely to surge resources to central Somalia to combat the mobilization. Al Shabaab has not yet seriously contested the offensive and has bloodlessly* retreated* from several villages as security forces advanced. Al Shabaab attacks on security forces in central Somalia largely paused throughout August.[5] The group has increased minor raids* and improvised explosive device attacks* in September, but none of the attacks have been sophisticated in scale or complexity. Al Shabaab would likely be more aggressive and willing to lose fighters contesting counterterrorism advances if it planned to send more resources to the area. This pattern instead indicates that al Shabaab is likely cutting its losses and consolidating its existing resources. This nonconfrontational strategy may also allow it to re-entrench itself in central Somalia in the future if it repairs relationships with the Hawiye and the SFG fails to assert itself by delivering effective governance, including responding to the ongoing drought. 

Al Shabaab may pursue more confrontational strategies in central Somalia in possible but less likely scenarios. Al Shabaab could be consolidating its forces in preparation for a large-scale attack. Al Shabaab will often institute an operational pause or lull before large attacks. There were no reported attacks in the Bakool region in southwestern Somalia for two months before its offensive into Ethiopia, for example.[6] Al Shabaab could alternatively use its limited forces in central Somalia to intimidate or demoralize clan forces by attacking softer and more vulnerable targets. Al Shabaab has attempted to assassinate* the Hiraan regional governor twice* since June 2022. Al Shabaab could also begin targeting clan militia commanders as it did in 2018* and 2020,* or it could double down on retaliatory attacks on civilians. Both potential options would risk inviting greater backlash from the mobilized Hawiye subclans.


[1] Ioan Myrddin Lewis, Peoples of the Horn of Africa (Somali Afar and Saho) (London, UK: Routledge, 2019).  

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims over 35 Troops Killed in 4 Attacks in Kenya, Documents War Spoils Captured During Major Op in Mogadishu,” February 18, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Targets Kenyan Polling Center and Ballot Boxes, Executes Spies for American, Kenyan, and Somali Intel,” August 10, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims at Least 25 Ethiopian Casualties in Multiple Attacks, Concurrent Raids on 8 Military Bases,” August 17, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] Author’s assessment based on Critical Threats Project data.

[6] Author’s assessment based on Critical Threats Project data.

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Africa File: Hayat Hotel Siege Challenges Somali Federal Government’s Counterterrorism Strategy  

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

To receive the Africa File via email, please subscribe here. 

Key Takeaway: Al Shabaab conducted its longest-ever siege on a hotel in Somalia’s capital on August 19, marking a stepped-up effort to destabilize the country’s new administration and derail support for its counterterrorism agenda. This attack may have also aimed to disrupt Somali leaders’ responses to al Shabaab’s ongoing campaign along the Ethiopian border. The August 19 attack highlights the Somali government’s challenge in balancing its campaign against al Shabaab in central Somalia with the group’s attack capability in politically sensitive and strategically valuable areas of southern Somalia.

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: August 2022

Source: Kathryn Tyson and Emily Estelle.

Al Shabaab conducted a complex suicide attack targeting the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu on August 19, causing dozens of casualties and highlighting coordination problems between Somali security forces. Suicide bombers used an explosive vest and a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) to target security checkpoints and breach the hotel’s perimeter, allowing four attackers to enter the hotel. Turkish-trained special Haramcad police and regular Mogadishu police responded slowly, arriving an hour after the attack began. Al Shabaab repelled the police with grenades and a second suicide vest attacker, who hid among fleeing victims. US-trained Alpha Group Gaashaan special forces took over the response after two hours but struggled to end the siege or coordinate with the other units. Turkish-trained Gorgor special forces eventually reinforced* the Gaashaan and helped end the siege after 30 hours. The attack killed 21 people and wounded at least 117 others, according to official estimates.

The Hayat attack underscores al Shabaab’s continued strength in Mogadishu and the surrounding regions. The Hayat attack is the first siege assault in Mogadishu since January 2021, but it joins a long list of other hotel sieges over the past several years. Government officials often do business or even live in hotels in Mogadishu for security purposes. Al Shabaab has substantial support zones in Mogadishu’s outer districts and the neighboring Lower Shabelle region, which it uses to stage these complex attacks. Two al Shabaab bomb makers died* making a VBIED in outer Mogadishu’s Dharkenley district in late July, roughly five miles from the Hayat Hotel. The incident indicates that al Shabaab has VBIED manufacturing facilities in Mogadishu’s peripheries. Previous counterterrorism raids also show that al Shabaab commanders and technical experts* coordinate and support operations in Mogadishu from neighboring areas.

Figure 2. Al Shabaab’s Area of Operations Around Mogadishu: August 2022

Note: For an interactive map of al Shabaab’s area of operations, click here.

Source: Liam Karr.

Al Shabaab likely conducted the Hayat attack to intimidate politicians and undermine support for the new Somali Federal Government administration and its counterterrorism efforts. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in April 2022 promising to launch a multifront ideological and military war against al Shabaab that would begin with a military offensive to contain the group and push it back deeper into the countryside. President Mohamud launched a counter–al Shabaab offensive* in central Somalia in June 2022 that has cleared* numerous* villages.* The government attempted to cement these gains in Hiraan region by coordinating governance* and resource provision* structures for local populations in August. The Somali National Army has likewise focused on working with and supporting* local militias. Al Shabaab has responded with sporadic and geographically spread attacks that does not amount to a cohesive counter-offensive. A single suicide VBIED attack targeted security forces north of Beledweyne on August 5. Al Shabaab militants ambushed* a security force convoy east of Beledweyne on August 16. Al Shabaab fighters also claimed to drive a local clan militia out of a village west of Beledweyne on August 31. 

Al Shabaab responded to President Mohamud in an August 21 statement following the Hayat Hotel attack, mocking him for “claiming he could crush” al Shabaab and declaring a war he is “unprepared to wage.”[1] Al Shabaab also threatened Somali Federal Government (SFG) officials, saying that al Shabaab would be the ones to “crush” SFG personnel and that government officials should be afraid to sleep in their own homes. Al Shabaab likely framed the attack as a response to the government’s offensive to intimidate politicians and undermine political will for further counterterrorism offensives. This framing implies that more counterterrorism operations will lead to more al Shabaab attacks and that the government will be unable to protect people from these attacks.

Figure 3. Somali Forces Wage Central Somalia Offensive: Summer 2022

Note: Somali National Army is abbreviated as “SNA.”

Source: Liam Karr.

Al Shabaab may have targeted the Hayat Hotel to hamper responses to its cross-border offensive into Ethiopia. Al Shabaab launched a large offensive with at least 1,500 fighters along the Ethiopian border from Somalia’s South West and Hirshabelle States in late July. Ethiopian forces repelled most of the attackers. It is unclear if al Shabaab retains a small presence in Ethiopia. Al Shabaab has continued to target Ethiopian forces along the border with mortars* and roadside improvised explosive devices.* Ethiopian and South West State leaders have conducted several* discussions* to increase* security cooperation in the weeks since. Al Shabaab may have targeted the Hayat Hotel—a favorite lodging for political and clan leaders from South West State—in a bid to disrupt further security coordination efforts. A group of clan elders from Ethiopia’s Somali Region reportedly died in the attack. Neither al Shabaab nor Ethiopian or Somali officials have publicly tied the Hayat Hotel attack to al Shabaab’s cross-border campaign, however.

Al Shabaab has sustained activity in other areas of southern Somalia and Kenya, demonstrating its ability to sustain multiple resource-intensive campaigns. Al Shabaab raided numerous Somali, Kenyan, and Ugandan bases in near-concurrent attacks on August 13 and 20 and has also maintained its regular daily attacks on security forces across Somalia.[2] Al Shabaab also increased its activity in Kenya’s border regions in August, including intimidating* Kenyan citizens and attacking* polling stations and ballot transports* with the aim of disrupting Kenyan elections.[3] The group threatened to strike at the “heart of Kenya” if president-elect William Ruto does not withdraw Kenyan soldiers from Somalia.[4] These patterns are consistent with preexisting al Shabaab campaigns to expel foreign forces from Somalia, target democratic processes, and undermine the Kenyan government’s support among the ethnic Somali population of northeastern Kenya.

President Mohamud doubled down on his preexisting counterterrorism plan after the Hayat Hotel attack, indicating that a significant shift in the administration’s counterterrorism approach is unlikely in the short term. President Mohamud gave a televised speech on August 23, his first public remarks following the attack. He vowed “total war” against al Shabaab and emphasized the importance of his administration’s ongoing counterterrorism efforts. Mohamud stressed* that his counterterrorism strategy, which aims to fulfill his campaign promise of ending al Shabaab terrorism in Somalia, is still being prepared and implemented. Mohamud also said* that al Shabaab attacks seek to “distract the government from its plan to liberate the country.” The Somali government has not appeared to initiate significant changes to its counterterrorism approach since the Hayat Hotel attack. Security forces resumed clearing* operations* in the regions bordering Mogadishu after a lull for nearly all of August.


[1] SITE Intelligence Group, “At the End of Hayat Hotel Raid, Shabaab Boasts 170 Casualties in Longest Such Hotel Attack Waged by Fighters,” August 21, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims at Least 25 Ethiopian Casualties in Multiple Attacks, Concurrent Raids on 8 Military Bases,” August 17, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Targets Kenyan Polling Center and Ballot Boxes, Executes Spies for American, Kenyan, and Somali Intel,” August 10, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Targets Kenyan Polling Center and Ballot Boxes, Executes Spies for American, Kenyan, and Somali Intel”; and SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Threatens ‘Heart’ of Kenya, Urges Kenyan Muslims Rise Up and ‘Not Suffer in Silence,’” August 29, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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Africa File: Al Shabaab Attacks Ethiopia 

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

To receive the Africa File via email, please subscribe here. 

Key Takeaway: Al Shabaab conducted a multiday campaign inside Ethiopia for the first time. The cross-border offensive demonstrates al Shabaab’s strength inside Somalia and underscores its regional ambitions. Ethiopian security forces will likely contain the al Shabaab threat to Ethiopia in the near term, but domestic conditions in Ethiopia and Somalia may allow the group to wage a sustained cross-border insurgency over time.

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: July 2022

Source: Kathryn Tyson and Emily Estelle.

Al Shabaab launched an offensive into Ethiopia from southwestern Somalia on July 20. Al Shabaab began the offensive by attacking* four* border towns in Somalia. These towns border Ethiopia’s Somali region, also known as Ogaden, which is home to a majority ethnic Somali population. Al Shabaab claimed to overrun two of the towns, Ato and Yeed, killing several members of the Liyu police—a regional Ethiopian paramilitary force based in the Somali region. These attacks were likely a diversionary effort to allow approximately 500 al Shabaab fighters to drive into Ethiopia. One group of these militants entered Ethiopia near Yeed and clashed with the Liyu police in Afder Zone from July 20 to 22. Another group entered east of Somalia’s El Barde town and has advanced between the Ethiopian towns of Gode and Kellafo without engaging Ethiopian security forces, as of July 27. At least 1,500 fighters have participated in the offensive.

Figure 2. Al Shabaab Ethiopia Offensive: July 2022

Source: Liam Karr.

Ethiopian Somali Region security forces are waging a counteroffensive. The Liyu police encircled the first al Shabaab group that had entered at Yeed, near Hulhul, in Hargele district on July 22. Somali Region officials claimed on July 24 that Liyu police killed over 100 of these militants and destroyed at least 13 vehicles. Liyu forces repelled* another al Shabaab force* of nearly 200 militants near the Ethiopian border with the Hiraan region in central Somalia on July 24, claiming to kill 85 militants. These al Shabaab fighters could have tried to link with the second group inside Ethiopia by using the road running from Ferfer to Gode. Ethiopian security forces have now shifted to the counteroffensive* in Ethiopia and may be advancing into Somalia. Somali Region and Liyu police officials have not publicly acknowledged the presence of this second group of al Shabaab militants between Gode and Kellafo.  

Al Shabaab regularly targets Ethiopian forces inside Somalia but rarely this close to the Ethiopian border. Many previous al Shabaab attacks have* targeted the approximately 4,000 Ethiopian soldiers in the African Union peacekeeping mission, now called the African Union Transitional Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). Attacks on the Ethiopian border are rare because the Liyu forces, supported by Ethiopian National Defense Forces and the Ethiopian ATMIS contingent, had established bases in Somalian border towns that created a buffer zone along most of the Ethiopian border with southwestern Somalia. Al Shabaab had not attacked Ethiopian forces this close to the Ethiopian border in the Bakool region since at least 2016* and had not directly attacked Liyu positions since 2014.*

Al Shabaab likely set conditions for offensive operations in Ethiopia by targeting Ethiopian convoys in southwestern Somalia in May 2022. This campaign likely aimed to keep Ethiopian forces out of potential staging grounds that al Shabaab used to gather the roughly 1,500 fighters used in the July offensive. Al Shabaab targeted Ethiopian convoys in southwestern Somalia with roadside improvised explosive devices or ambushes at least 10 times* in May. At least eight attacks* targeted* convoys* traveling between a border town and Somali National Army (SNA) or Ethiopian military bases. Al Shabaab may have also developed networks inside Ethiopia to prepare for the July offensive. Ethiopian police arrested al Shabaab weapon smugglers in Elkere* and the Barey* districts in May 2022.

Figure 3. Al Shabaab Targets Ethiopian Convoys in Somalia: May 2022

Source: Liam Karr. 

Al Shabaab will likely tout its incursion into Ethiopia as a symbolic victory, even if it suffers significant losses in the short-term. Al Shabaab published photos of the initial raids on Ato and Yeed on July 21, touting its successes along the “artificial border” between Ethiopia and Somalia.[1] Al Shabaab uses this pan-Somali narrative to recruit members and justify its ongoing fight against Ethiopia and Kenya in Somali-majority territories. The group has yet to release more media about the Ethiopia offensive as of July 21, despite continuing regular media production on attacks in Somalia and Kenya.[2] This is an uncharacteristic lag, and al Shabaab has quickly released claims for other large-scale offensives in other areas of Somalia in 2022.[3] This delay may indicate that al Shabaab is preparing a larger media release on the Ethiopia campaign, or it may mean that the group has suffered major casualties that have inhibited its propaganda efforts.

Ethiopian officials drew likely false connections between al Shabaab and separatists based in the Oromia Region. The Oromo ethnic group is Ethiopia’s largest and has faced historical marginalization. The separatist Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is currently waging an insurgency that may be surpassing the Tigray conflict as the primary threat to the cohesion of the Ethiopian state. The Ethiopian government has previously accused* Oromo groups such as the OLA of links*to jihadist groups, with little evidence. Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service claimed to disrupt an al Shabaab attack cell in the Oromia and Somali Regions in April* 2022. An anonymous Ethiopian official claimed on July 22 that the al Shabaab fighters intended to get to Elkere district, while the Somali region security council said* the fighters were trying to get to the border between the Somali and Oromia Regions. The Somali regional government also accused* al Shabaab of trying to connect with the OLA.

Al Shabaab may intend its offensive primarily to achieve effects inside Somalia. Al Shabaab activity along the border likely disrupts Ethiopian ground lines of communication to its bases farther into southwestern Somalia. Al Shabaab has previously tried to disrupt Ethiopian ATMIS operations with attacks on convoys. Fixing the ATMIS forces near the border could increase al Shabaab’s freedom of movement deeper into southwestern Somalia.

Al Shabaab may alternately seek to establish a persistent insurgency in Ethiopia’s Somali Region. The group may perceive an opportunity because Ethiopia faces multiple insurgencies that will limit its ability to reinforce security forces in its Somali Region or Somalia. The Tigray conflict, which began in late 2020, has contributed to a general deterioration of security in Ethiopia and an increase in violence in other ethnic-based federal states. The OLA insurgency in Oromia and neighboring Amhara states is overtaking the Tigray conflict as the federal government’s primary concern. Ethiopia also faces a potential security crisis on its border* with Sudan. These simultaneous security crises will strain the Ethiopian state’s ability to send reinforcements to the Somali Region or Somalia against an emboldened al Shabaab—much less address the governance shortfalls in the Somali Region that contribute to the risk of insurgency. Anti-government grievances in the Somali Region may create an opportunity for al Shabaab to position itself as an opponent of the Liyu police, which are accused* of human rights violations. Al Shabaab has historically failed to gain a foothold in Ethiopia despite these grievances, however, due to various social factors, including tribal relations.

A unilateral Ethiopian response in Somalia could worsen Ethiopian-Somali relations and disrupt security cooperation. Somali-Ethiopian relations have worsened since Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud returned to office in May 2022. Ethiopia and Kenya tend to compete for influence in Somalia; Mohamud has historically been closer with Nairobi than with Addis Ababa. Ethiopian officials dropped out of a scheduled meeting with Mohamud on July 18, causing the Somali president to cancel* a scheduled trip to Ethiopia. Ethiopia has sought to strengthen ties with northern Somalia’s semiautonomous Puntland State, whose leaders have drifted from Mohamud after he did not appoint a politician from Puntland as the prime minister.

Somali actors also have grievances with Ethiopian forces, specifically the Liyu, which could hamper security cooperation near the border. The Somali Bakool region governor, on July 22, urged the Liyu and other Ethiopian forces to consult with Somali officials before crossing the border “illegally” to conduct military operations. The Liyu police have* clashed* with Somali clan militias in the past.

Al Shabaab has intensified its efforts against other foreign forces in Somalia beyond the Ethiopia offensive. Al Shabaab overran a Burundian ATMIS base in May, killing at least 50 soldiers. The group has since conducted several* significant attacks* contesting control of roads and strategic locations in the Middle Shabelle region, indicating that it may seek access to key routes leading into Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Al Shabaab’s heightened focus on targeting international forces may indicate that it seeks to pressure ATMIS contributors to withdraw earlier than the scheduled drawdown in 2024. The withdrawal of foreign forces would allow al Shabaab to break the current pseudo-stalemate and win significant victories against overstretched Somali security forces.


[1] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Documents Ethiopian Casualties in Twin Attacks on Border, Estimates 87 Killed and Dozens Wounded,” available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims Attacks on Kenyan Troops in Garissa and Mandera, Multiple Strikes on Bases and Somali Defense Ministry HQ,” July 26, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Gives Estimates 173 Burundian Troops Dead in Suicide Raid in Middle Shabelle,” May 3, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Announces Successful Military Offensive in Mogadishu Involving 2 Suicide Attacks, Raids in Multiple Districts,” February 16, 2022, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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